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October 23, 2022

The Values of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) Using Thagard Cognitive-Affective Mapping (TCAM)

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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The purpose of this paper is to apply the principles of Thagard Cognitive-Affective Mapping (TCAM) to the career of Ibn Sina, best known in the West as Avicenna (980-1037 CE), to illustrate the positive impact of the values of Faith, Love and Intellect on his personal life and research. The paper will also explore how the social and political environment of his day negatively impacted Avicenna. Regarded as one of ancient Persia’s most influential physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and writers, he died at the early age of 57. Unfortunately, too little is known about his personal life, such as whether he ever married or had a family.

1. Introduction

When I saw The Cognitive Science of Science (MIT Press, 2012) on the shelves of the University of Waterloo bookstore in Waterloo ON, I was taken by surprise that the author is a professional colleague of mine, Prof. Paul Thagard of the UW Department of Philosophy. I was equally (if not more) pleasantly surprised that Dr. Thagard’s book mentions neural networks, an area of research for which I designed complex microchips.

Thagard explains that cognitive science combines philosophical, historical, psychological, computational, and neuroscientific approaches to explore scientific development. In one chapter, he demonstrates how Cognitive-Affective Maps are used as an effective research tool in studying the cognitive science of science.

With my background as a leading international digital microchip designer, I expressed to Paul my desire to develop a Cognitive-Affective Map for the famed 10th-century CE Muslim scholar Avicenna, as a case study for the cognitive science of Islamic scholarship. He encouraged me to do so and this preliminary paper is the first-fruit of that support.

The following sections will examine the justification for each of the elements attributed to Avicenna. 

Avicenna’s Personal Value Map includes 13 positive elements: Faith, Love, Rationality, Ma'rifa (deep knowledge), Power, Self-worth, Wealth, Family, Teacher, Student, Happiness, Fame, and Success. Among them, Faith is considered a “strongly positive element.” Avicenna’s value map also includes 4 negative elements: Ignorance, Failure, Heresy, and Isolation, as well as 1 neutral element – politics. Elements connected by solid lines indicate mutual support; dotted lines indicate incompatibility. 

In The Cognitive Science of Science, Paul Thagard introduced cognitive-affective "value mapping" to explore how cognitive science can contribute to a deeper understanding of scientific research. 

In the words of Avicenna himself, “Part of [the concept of] the Return is received from revealed religion, and there is no way of establishing truth [except through] Sharia and the acceptance of . . .  prophecy as true. This is what will befall the body at the Uprising, and those corporeal goods and evils that are too well known to require restating here . . . The true Sharia was brought into this world by . . . Prophet Muhammad [who] has described in detail the state of felicity or wretchedness in terms of the body.”1

2. Why Avicenna?

Dr. Brian Davies, British philosopher, Catholic priest, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and author of The Philosophy of Religion (among many other titles), writes:

Nobody seriously concerned with medical philosophy and theology, whether done from the Islamic, Jewish, or Christian perspective, can afford to ignore Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Born at the end of the tenth century in what is now Uzbekistan [ancient Persia], Avicenna became a profound influence not only on Islamic thinking but also on that of Jews (such as Maimonides) and Christians (such as Thomas Aquinas). If a great thinker is one whose thought can be assimilated and developed by people of very different intellectual tradition, then Avicenna without doubt, a great thinker.2

3. Philosophy and Religion  

In the anthology Islamic and Arab Contribution to the European Renaissance (trans. Ibrahim Madkour) we read:

Some scholars have held that philosophy and Islam have little to do with each other, and others maintain that philosophy plays an important and even essential role in the Islamic tradition. Typically, those who hold that Islam and philosophy are incompatible have a rather narrow definition of what constitutes Islamic belief and practice, while those who see no essential conflict define their terms much more broadly.

When considering this discussion, which comes up quickly in most general works on Islamic philosophy, we need to remember that, by and large, the Western experts have been trained in the history of Greek and Western philosophy, not in Islamic thought, which means that they have understood philosophy's role in Western terms. They have also tended to have a modern preconception about the mutual hostility between religion and philosophy. For many modern scholars, after all, religion is beneath the dignity of the intellectual, whereas true philosophy represents a grand quest for truth on the part of those too enlightened to fall for religious dogma. Some of the well-known experts have told us that the philosophers had to hide their true beliefs in "esoteric" formulations and bow to the rhetorical needs of their times, because their teachings went against the grain of the religious tradition. In this view, it is irrelevant that, on the surface at least, most philosophers considered philosophy a legitimate way to understand and practice Islam and that they saw no contradiction between Islamic faith and the philosophical quest. Such statements in the texts are considered window-dressing to fend off the criticism of benighted dogmatists. 

[But] like other religions, Islam addresses three basic levels of human existence: practice, understanding, and virtue; or body, mind, and heart; or to use the well-known Qur’anic triad, islam (submission), iman (faith), and ihsan (doing what is beautiful). These concerns are patently obvious to anyone who has studied the Qur’an or the Prophet made incumbent on the faithful to pertain to all three of these domains.

[Submission and practice are governed by] verbal attestation that there is no god, but God and that Mohammad is His messenger. 

[Faith and understanding] address what it is that Muslims are bearing witness to. No one can have faith in God without a concept of "God." 

The third domain, that of virtue and the interior life, pertains to deepening of practice and faith so that these permeate the soul and lead to the perception of God's reality and presence in all things. Hence the Prophet's famous definition of insan ("doing what is beautiful"): "it is that you serve God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.”3

4. Faith, Love, Rationality and Ma’rifa

According to Qur’anic teaching, most Muslim scholars assert that faith (Iman) can be attained from deep knowledge (Ma'rifa) exclusively in the heart. This can be achieved either through meditation, as the Sufis do, or through profound intellectual reflection on the Universe and its creation, or via both approaches.

The Qur’an’s description of the first group (those who meditate) includes all whose love for the Divine is strong and mutual (5:54).

Those who seek Ma’rifa through studying creation in great depth (Khaliq), acknowledge God/Allah as the Original Designer of the universe who needed no blueprint (Ba'ree) and who, as the supreme Artist (Mosawar), infused all created things with their own Beauty (59:24).4

5. Faith and Love in the life of Avicenna  

Avicenna opens Risalah fi al-'Ishq, his treatise on love, with: “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. Praise to God; my prayers and peace to the Messengers whom God showered with His prayers and peace.”

In the preface Avicenna states that he wrote it at the request of one Abu Abdallah al-Faqeeh al-Masoumi (who could have been a student, or fellow scholar), to explain the meaning of al-'Ishq, the highest level of love. He explains that Risalah fi al-'Ishq is divided into seven chapters:

The first discusses how the power of al-'lshq is contained in every element of creation.

The second discusses how al-'lshq is present in simple, non-bodily things.

The third shows that al-'lshq exists in the plant kingdom; indeed, in the soul of plants.

The fourth shows that al-'lshq exists in the animal kingdom.

The fifth describes how young men of good character experience al-'lshq when encountering a beautiful woman, noting that Prophet Muhammad advised men to seek and marry women of beauty.

The sixth chapter explains al-'lshq in relation to Divine Souls. 

The seventh chapter affirms that every existing thing connects with Absolute Good through al-'lshq as instinctive love, which the Sufis describe as Perfect Union.5

6. Avicenna: the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Old Testament 

Although Avicenna rarely made direct quotes from the Qur’an (the Divine Revelation given to Prophet Muhammad), the Hadith (recorded teachings of the Prophet), nor the Old Testament (the compiled scripture of Judaism, written mainly in Hebrew) he made it clear that all three sources inspired many of his writings, such as the following examples: 

Humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

The seven Heavens and the Earth and all that is therein glorify Him, nor is there anything but glorifieth Him with praise, yet ye understand not their glorification (Qur’an: XVII,44).

God is the First and the Last and the Outwardly and Inwardly Hidden (Qur’an LVII:3).

God created not the Heavens and the Earth and what lies between them save from Truth and an appointed term (Qur’an XXX:8).

I (God) was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, and so I created the World. (Hadith).6

7. Avicenna and Sufism

Although Avicenna was not a Sufi Master like Rumi and didn't write about his Sufi training like Al-Ghazali, he was on good terms with the Sufis of his time.

W. Stoddart and R. A. Nicholson write in Sufism, the Mystical Doctrine and the Idea of Personality that:

“[Many] Sufis have held a doctrine resembling that of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) as to the immorality of the individual soul and its union – but not its complete unification – with the World-Spirit, such union constituting the blessedness of the good. Others, again seem to regard absorption in the Deity, the merging of the individual soul of the Saint in the Universal Soul of God, as the ideal which, though temporarily attainable in this life, only receives permanent realization in another state of existence. Ibn Sina, Ibnu 'l-Farid, and Rumi reject the doctrine of transmigration of souls (tanasukh), but Rumi teaches that as man has risen from inanimate matter, through the vegetable and animal worlds to the stage of humanity, so after death he will continue his spiritual evolution and become an angel in heaven.”7

8. Avicenna, Sufism and the Church 

In Al-Isharat (The Book of Directives and Remarks),8 one of his last major works, Avicenna explains the existence of the soul and its immortality based on Islamic Sufi teachings, although he doesn't use Sufi vocabulary.  He tried to give revelation a scientific interpretation in Al-Isharat, which became the subject of argument, support, and opposition at the time.

Avicenna’s ideas were favorably received by Christian scholars such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas as being consistent with their religious teachings. However, the Church used its authority to ban such philosophical arguments. A similar case occurred in 1277 when an edict was issued banning the teachings of the philosopher-monk Siger of Brabant, who was killed a few years later by his own deacon.

Apart from the Sufis, some Muslim scholars objected to Avicenna’s attempts to reconcile Islamic teachings with Greek philosophy. However, they did not have the institutional power of the Church to harm him or ban his books. In fact, the Great Imam of Al-Azhar University, Dr. Abdul-Halim Mahmoud – a practicing Sufi who had a French PhD in Islamic Philosophy – widely quoted Avicenna's Al-Isharat in his Arabic book, Islamic Philosophy.

9. Avicenna’s influence on Al-Ghazali 

Although Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) was born 21 years after Avicenna’s death, he was greatly influenced by him. And this gives us further insight into Avicenna's thinking.

In a paper called Creation and the Cosmic System: Al-Ghazali & Avicenna, presented at the1986 Penn-Paris-Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium, Richard Frank observes:

“In focusing on the relationship between Avicenna and Al-Ghazali, I do not mean to suggest here that Avicenna is the only philosopher whose work exerted influence on al-Ghazali's thought and his theology, but to begin from the obvious fact that he had a profound effect on al-Ghazali's thinking and to take some account of al-Ghazali’s manifest occupation with his work. It is important to keep in mind in this context that there is a significant religious dimension to the philosophical vision of Avicenna.”9

10. Avicenna and Literature 

Although Avicenna was not famous as a poet, his student al-Juzjani reported:

"One day the Master was seated before the Amir, and Abu Mansur al-Jabban was also present. A philological problem came up for discussion. The Master gave his views as they occurred to him, whereupon Abu Mansur turned to him and remarked, ‘You are a philosopher and a wise man; but you have never studied philology to such an extent that we should be pleased to hear you discourse on the subject’.”10 

11. Avicenna and Theology  

 “We moved to Bukhara, where I was put under teachers of the Qur’an and of letters. By the time I was ten I had mastered the Qur’an and a great deal of literature, so that I was marveled at for my aptitude.”11

12. The Political Climate  

Avicenna was born when the central authority of the Caliphate in Baghdad was declining and regional rulers were gaining power. The latter were inclined to support new developments in science and philosophy which challenged the intellectual status quo in Baghdad. Among those supported by the ascending regional rulers were members of the revolutionary Shi'ite sect of Islam and the Shi’ite branch known as Ismailis. Avicenna’s household was Ismaili and his full name was typical for a Shi'ite of that time: Abu Ali el-Hussein ibn Abdullah ibn el-Hassan ibn Ali.

13. Notable names during Avicenna’s era

The half-century during which Avicenna lived was rich in intellectual energy. Noted commentator al-Tabari (d. 923) had finished his massive work on the Qur’an; the philosopher al-Farabi (d. 950) had completed important works on Islamic sciences, including The Ideal State; and in 970 a group called The Pure Brethren published their Encyclopedia of Knowledge.  In 973 the Islamic University of Azhar was established in Cairo. Al-Mawardi (d. 1058) published Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya w'al-Wilayat al-Diniyya (The Ordinances of Government) and the Egyptian ruler Hakim (986-1021) declared himself a divine intellect. In 1010, Firdausi finished the Persian national epic, Shah-Nama; and Abu al-Ala al-Ma'arri (d. 1058), a giant in Arabic literature, was at the peak of his prolific career. Muhammad ibn Zakariyy ar-Razi (d. 934) was widely known as a celebrated physician.12

14. Conclusions and Future Work

This paper shows that Thagard Cognitive-Affective Mapping makes it possible to know more aspects of the cognitive science of great medical thinkers. But this is a daunting job and this paper is just a start. As British philosopher Dr. Brian Davies says, “Many people would be surprised to be told that were any great medieval thinkers. If a great thinker is one from whom we can learn today, and if ‘medieval’ serves as an adjective for describing anything that existed from (roughly) the years 600 to 1500 AD then, so it is often supposed, medieval thinkers cannot be called ‘great’.”13

But why is that so? One answer appeals to ways in which medieval authors tend to invoke “authorities,” especially religious ones. Today it is often held that such invocations of authority do not demonstrate great thought. It is also frequently said that greatness of thought is not found in those who lived before the rise of modern science, philosophy, or theology. 

Students of science in our century are hardly ever referred back to literature earlier than the seventeenth century. Similarly, students of philosophy have often been taught nothing about the history of ideas between Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Descartes (1596-1650). And contemporary students of theology are often encouraged to believe that significant thinking in their field is a product of the nineteenth century.

I hope this paper can be a beginning toward filling the gap and that researchers work to develop computational models for the cognitive science of some of the great medieval thinks and even seek their views on current affairs such as war, peace, and the use of nuclear weapons.

15. Acknowledgments 

First, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Prof. Paul Thagard of the University of Waterloo for encouragement and feedback. And I also offer appreciation to leading Avicenna experts, Prof. Jon McGinnis of the University of Missouri at St. Louis and Prof. William Chittick of Stony Brook University. Now I am a firm believer in multidisciplinary research and ready to apply Thagard’s Value Mapping to a study of Averroes.

* Mohamed I. Elmasry is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo, Waterloo ON. He can be reached at


1 Ibn Sina (Avicenna), “Return of the Human Souls,” Book III in Al-Najat (The Deliverance), Trans. William Chittick, 291-298.

2 From G. E. Von Grunebaum, Classical Islam, a History 600-1258, Barnes & Noble 1970.

3 Avicenna, Al-Isharat wa’l-tanbihat, trans. Ibrahim Madkour, cited in Islamic and Arab Contribution to the European Renaissance, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1977.

4 From Avicenna on Theology, Murray (1951) cited in A. J. Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization, University of Michigan, 1964.

5 Cited in Martin Lings, Symbol & Archetype: A Study of the Meaning of Existence, Fons Vitae, 2005.

6 Cited in William Chittick, The Heart of Islamic Philosophy, OUP 2001.

7 W. Stoddart and R. A. Nicholson, Sufism, the Mystical Doctrine and the Idea of Personality, Adam Publications 1998

8 Brian Davies, preface to Avicenna, Jon McGinnis, OUP 2010.

9 Richard M. Frank. Creation and the Cosmic System: Al-Ghazali & Avicenna (Penn-Paris-Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium 1986) Universitätsverlag Winter, 1992.

10 Cited in A.J. Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

11 Cited in W. Stoddart and R. A. Nicholson, Sufism, the Mystical Doctrine and the Idea of Personality, Adam Publications 1998 

12 Toshihiko Izutsu, The Concept of Belief in Islamic Theology, Ayer Publications, 1999.

13 Davies, preface to Avicenna, Jon McGinnis, 2010.


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